Kachuyevski, Jones, Riggan, Cox Examine Role of Identity in Conflicts

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 23, 2010

Dr. Angela Kachuyevski, Assistant Professor of Political Science, master’s program in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, chaired a panel on “Redefining the Imaginary: Identity, Conflict and Human Rights,” on Thursday, Feb. 18, at the International Studies Association conference.

Four Arcadia faculty presented papers for this panel. Kachuyevski looked at conflict in Israel and Estonia. Sandra Jones, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, discussed the Legacy Project of Rwanda’s International Criminal Tribunal. Dr. Jennifer A. Riggan, Assistant Professor of International Studies, examined the media portrayal of Eritrea as a “prison state.” And Dr. Amy Cox, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, master’s program in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, examined Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Quebecois in Quebec.

Kachuyevski, with Ronnie M. Olesker of St. Lawrence University, examines the concepts of borders and group identity in Israel and Estonia. She writes about the potential for a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” where actions taken by a government threatened by a minority group’s identity with ethnic kin in a neighboring country further alienates the minority group.

Their paper, “Imagined Boundaries, Real Borders: Explaining Minority-Majority Conflict in Estonia and Israel,” examines how differing perceptions of social boundaries impact minority-majority relations in Estonia and in Israel by shaping group identity. “Drawing upon Charles Tilly’s work on social boundaries, we examine how changes in structural, social, political and economic intergroup relations shape the complex and fragmented identities of the minority in these two cases, potentially encouraging intergroup conflict,” Kachuyevski says.

“In each case, the minority possesses a distinct, complex and nuanced identity, in which they are neither fully part of the ‘nation-state’ in which they live, nor do they fully identify with their ethno-national kin state,” Kachuyevski says. “Nonetheless, the government feels threatened by the presence of the minority, seeing them as disloyal at best, and potentially as a ‘fifth column.’ We argue that the resulting institutionalized discrimination creates a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in which the state, fearing the minority is disloyal, seeks to limit their political power, yet the resulting discrimination isolates the minority from the state, eroding their civic loyalty. Conflict between the kin state and the state of residence exacerbates this phenomenon, further eroding the loyalty of the minority to their state of residence, increasing their sympathy for their neighboring ethnic kin and possibly opening the door to violent rebellion.”

Jones, Program Coordinator for Arcadia’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, also is a doctoral student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. She served on Kachuyevski’s panel and presented a paper on “Reconciling International Justice with Local Legitimacy: The Legacy Project of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.”

“Theory argues that the protection of human rights should contribute directly to the prevention and resolution of conflict,” Jones says. “In practice, however, certain key ideas such as justice and accountability are abstract concepts rooted in a society’s culture and identity. Never could this be more apparent than in Rwanda, where the United Nations sought to bring competent and impartial justice to those accused of participating in the genocide, bringing normative human rights standards to the pursuit of accountability.

“While this effort was largely successful at achieving the goals of justice and accountability at the macro level, it also struggled to substantively engage the Rwandan people in what essentially was a remote process,” Jones says. “This illustrates the tension between international accountability and local legitimacy in the pursuit of justice.” Through an analysis of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) Legacy Project, her paper examines how the ICTR has sought to overcome this tension by making the international human rights norms it institutes accessible and meaningful to the general public. She identifies how the tribunal addressed identity related concepts of justice and draws conclusions regarding its legacy as a framework for the prevention of future conflict in the region.

Riggan’s contribution to the panel discussion was a paper on “Prison State, Pariah and Proxy War: Human Rights Imaginaries and the Sovereignty Backlash in Eritrea.”

“The Eritrean state has been persistently depicted by mainstream media and by Human Rights organizations as a ‘prison state,” egregiously violating the human rights of its citizens and engaging in senseless conflicts with its neighbors,” Riggan says. Her paper examines these representations of Eritrea in mainstream, global media and the response to these representations in the speeches of Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki.

“Eritrea has been portrayed as a dictatorship, a country that denies the most basic of civil liberties to its citizens, a supporter of the Islamists in Somalia, and uncooperative with the international community. President Afwerki’s responses to these depictions tend to draw on narratives that remind Eritreans that the international community neglected Eritrea throughout their 30-year war for independence and continues to neglect Eritrea’s legitimate territorial claims in their conflict with Ethiopia,” Riggan says.

“The president’s responses to calls for an improved human rights record in Eritrea thus draw on discourses of isolationism and self-reliance. This ‘backlash’ against the international human rights discourse utilizes claims to national sovereignty, the right to protect one’s borders and govern within those borders to counter calls for an improved human rights record.” Her paper argues that, “while human rights and external conflict are certainly a concern in Eritrea, by ignoring the larger regional and historical context, accounts that de-contextualize Eritrea may actually bolster the president’s position and give legitimacy to his claims that Eritrea’s sovereignty must come before its human rights record.”

Cox presented a paper on “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: the State’s Role in Engendering Ethnic Group Support for Terrorism and Violence.” Her paper looks at the Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Quebecois in Quebec and explores how state-group relationships can cause shifts in national identity and loyalty, spurring hostility and violence, or not, depending on the state’s behavior toward both ethnic groups and terrorist organizations claiming to represent them.

“Why do some ethnic groups support the use of terrorism and violence to change the status quo and others do not?” Cox asks. “In cases where disaffected minorities mobilize to assert their rights, any potential acts of violence by radical and fringe elements encourage the government to ‘crack down.’ By targeting the minority group more broadly, the state may actually engender support for these radical groups.

“The relationship between the state and ethnic groups can be radicalized or polarized, therefore, because of choices made by the state,” Cox continues. “Terrorist groups often offer alternative conceptualizations of statehood for ethno-nationalist groups that are likely to be rejected by most members of the minority group when the state behaves neutrally or favorably toward them. However, if the state becomes the source of fear, mistrust and alienation, the ethnic identity can become the most important factor in determining loyalty, and violence may be a more acceptable option.”